"I do not understand civilization. In the desert, when we are thirsty, and our enemies hold the oasis, we throw spears and scream, and one side usually gives up after the first death. Our betters, the white men of civilization, fight for water they need not, and only give up when they are all dead."
--Chieftain Gagembe M'handi
Most soldiers of the Freedom Army were still in the city and, led by Drindell and Anita, were hunting every resistance soldier that hadn't yet gone to the castle. And in the castle, Hobenrûd was leading an army of about ten thousand people against what was left of the Sardinians.
The keep of the castle was atop a hill, and the Freedom Army was on lower ground. The Sardinian crossbows incessantly fired bolts at the attackers that tried to march up the elevated ground. Hobenrûd ordered a shield wall to be made, and that every rider to dismount and keep behind the shield wall. The attackers' infantry and cavalry marched slowly up the hill, while their archers climbed the nearby towers and shot the enemy from even higher ground. Sporadic bursts of unnatural lightning struck the turret crenellations, electrocuting many a royalist archer and forcing them to take cover in their terror.
The Sardinians couldn't kill enough members of the Freedom Army to make them stop, and were themselves being slowly killed by the ever-increasing number of revolutionary archers on the towers. It was not long until the bulk of the attackers reached the wooden gates of the keep.
Seeing that the Sardinians could resist for a long time, Hobenrûd decided to lead twenty of his most trusted into the keep, to kill the king, to end it once and for all. Running through the halls, he asked his companions, "Why isn't he helping the Sardinians!? I thought he was a wizard!"
"Perhaps he escaped?" was the answer. Nobody answered. The Gods couldn't have allowed such a injustice to happen. The king was inside the keep, probably hiding, cowardly and scared. And on this day, Hobenrûd would make him pay. He was thinking of Marin. If she didn't survive... he would kill the king, and then find a way to resurrect him, just so that he would be able to kill him again and again...
They met fierce opposition, and before long, five of them were dead. Sardinians would block the hallways, they would be ambushed from the rooms, but they wouldn't stop. Much was at stake. They ran, their breath faltering, slashing, gutting, thrusting and parrying against all that came upon them. Until they met a group of crossbowmen blocking a corridor, led by the commander of the defence forces, a red-haired man called Ruann Rovias.
They quickly fell back behind as the crossbow bolts zoomed through the air. "Okay, that's it, your little play-fight went on far enough. You can stay behind that wall until your friends lose down there, and my friends come up here and arrest you, or you can give up right now, both of which will make you be accused of high treason, executed and dismembered. Or you can take the third option and come running and screaming toward me, until my friends here put you on a stick. Many times," he said, in a mocking tone.
Hobenrûd couldn't believe it. He couldn't have come all the way to that keep to face an impassable barrier. "Why are the Sardinians helping the king, anyway!? Ruivoca is a poor country compared to yours. The king can offer you nothing," Hobenrûd asked the question that had bothered him for long.
A chuckle came from the corridor, "Okay, since we know each other for so long, I will let you in a secret. We found land, much land, to the west. Beyond the sea. Maybe more land than all that is currently known. An entire continent, maybe two. And believe me when I say it is laden with gold, and silver, precious stones and metals. And entire continent, maybe two, and it is ripe to be taken. By us. But Sardina is an archipelago, we don't have nearly enough land and wood to build as many shipyards as we want in order to be the first to take the land. We need more. So we decided to take some land from the Continent. And we don't really enjoy warring barbarian countries that can actually fight back. Instead, we support your barbarian kings and queens and princes. They let us buy their land in exchange. Everybody wins. Especially us."
"That is your reason? You help the king to kill our people and our hopes for wealth? You are the barbarians, not us, not the Sumdonians. And you think you are part of a superior people. I dearly hope that not all Sardinians are like that, because I fully intend to rid them of you," because it was your fault Marin is dead, Hobenrûd was going to say. But he chastised himself. She wasn't dead. She couldn't be.
Hobenrûd told one of his companions to give him his shield, then he sheathed his sword, and holding one shield in each hand, told the others, "When I go for the second time, charge after me."
The others were confused as Hobenrûd ran out of his refuge, holding the shields to defend most of his body, then he came back into cover, as the crossbowmen shot, missing him completely, and before they could reload, he ran toward them as fast as he could, with the shields defending his body. Before the charging men could reach the Sardinians, some of the crossbowmen managed to shoot another volley, but most bolts were deflected by the round shields, except for one, that scratched Hobenrûd's arm.
He slammed onto a group of crossbowmen, taking them to the ground, then he dropped the shields, unsheathed his sword, and attacked Rovias as strong as he could. The red-haired man parried his attack and held his sword with the half-moon shaped tip of his sword. Then he punched Hobenrûd's face, before he could escape the lock.
"Don't you ever learn? I heard you are the best you barbarians can offer, I see I was not mistaken on your abilities," the other man taunted, as Hobenrûd chased him into a nearby room which appeared to be an armory, so that it was full of various weapons, and it was a dead-end hallway. But Rovias didn't seem to lose his confidence. Hobenrûd didn't attack, he just waited, gripping his flamberge tightly. Rovias moved around, hopping on his feet.
This continued for some time, as both men searched for a weakness in each other's defence. After some time, Rovias made a move, bringing his blade to the left. Hobenrûd prepared to parry, but it was a feign, and only barely did he avoid being struck down. The other man smiled, and danced around more quickly. He slashed vertically, but Hobenrûd was prepared and avoided it.
Hobenrûd tossed his sword away and chose a different weapon from the rack on the wall, looking back at Rovias with a hint of a smile. Not many have even seen a weapon like this, much less had practice confronting it. It was a nine-part chain, and he twirled it around him with incredible ease, the metal taking a path of its own that only one skilled in using it could predict.
Rovias shook himself out of his surprise, and lunged at him with his sword. To his amazement the chain circled around the blade and knocked it sideways, then slithered back to Hobenrûd before lashing out again. A massive rip appeared in Rovias's shoulder, revealing bleeding skin underneath as the man stumbled back.
But only for a moment. Then he charged again, this time armed with a spear. The chain constricted flawlessly on its shaft, pulling it out of Rovias's hands. Hobenrûd continued spinning the chain about in intricate patterns, and now it had a spear jumbled up along with it and whirling about at an incredible velocity. Hurriedly, Rovias pulled a gigantic mace off the wall and swiped it horizontally, barely missing Hobenrûd's head but smashing into someone else. One of Hobenrûd's footmen toppled backward like a thrown dice, his chest and lungs collapsed, as several others approached and encircled Rovias, jabbing and slashing with their weaponry.
Hobenrûd dodged another blow from the massive mace and then cartwheeled sideways to avoid yet another hit as he lashed out his chain. When he had regained his footing he saw Rovias finish his own cartwheel, landing right beside him and having dodged a three-pronged attack; yet another footman was doomed, a pilum's shaft protruding from his solar plexus. Hobenrûd jumped as a scimitar flashed beneath him, then twirled the chain to catch the returning scimitar and knock it away. The second time he struck out with the chain, the weapon had wrapped around a trident's shaft, while Rovias grinned, suspended high above him and temporarily balancing on the pole.
He struck back down, forcing Hobenrûd to perform a sideways spin. The chain latched around Rovias's ankle and sent him crashing into another wall, another rack. Hobenrûd was about to strike out again when he found two bladed darts suddenly embedded into a footman's skull. Infuriated, he lashed about wildly, his chain hitting nothing; Rovias meanwhile had leapt on top of four converging weapons and kicked away another soldier, continuing his martial dance with perfection as he circled around another footman to break his back with a three-ball flail while simultaneously avoiding all hits.
Hobenrûd's chain bounced off a wall and brushed Rovias's knee, instantly drawing blood, even as its owner spun off the ground to avoid Rovias's spiked flail. He then dodged several javelin jabs in quick succession, before whipping his chain about his adversary's neck. A single pull, and Rovias was sent crashing into the ground, bleeding his entire neck over, the flail clashing into several more unused weapons. Rovias never got the chance to get back up as a footman quickly took the opportunity to press his boot on the fallen warrior's chest, pinning him down.
"It's over, you filth," Hobenrûd spat.
"Great evils exist in this world, but they are neither inhuman, nor all-powerful. The greatest of evils are those that reside in the human heart."
--Frenciano Rochell, Gran-mayor of Ginalía
But Hobenrûd had no time to feel glee or remorse; they rushed to the king's chamber, facing minimal opposition along the way. The room was big, but it had little furniture. This room was only supposed to be used by the king in case of assault, so most of his books and things were still in the palace. But there was no one in the room. The king had escaped.
"NO!" yelled Hobenrûd, punching the wall, his head hanged down. The king was not here. He and his Sardinian allies could come back and retake the throne after the war was over. It was all lost. Then, a brown-haired soldier beside him pointed to a metal ladder that went up to the roof, saying that the king could be there. And Hobenrûd, desperate, did not think twice before climbing.
From the roof, he could see the whole battle. The fields and buildings were burning from dragon-fire; many, many people, appearing no larger than ants, were fighting and killing each other; many buildings were reduced to rubble. There was smoke and dust everywhere, and some twisters carried away belligerents with windy fervor. Marin was probably down there. Hobenrûd shook his head and refocused his thoughts.
On the roof, there was a big metallic contraption. It was very strange, with pointy parts and round parts and reflective parts and parts that don't make geometric sense and a small transparent part with shimmering threads coming out of it. It was like nothing Hobenrûd had ever seen before. But he was forced out of his amazement as one of his companions flew high to the sky and came crashing down, screaming. All in less than two seconds. The king was there.
Two other footmen flew helplessly in opposite directions as a man with a strange appearance appeared from behind the contraption, dressed in brown garb, wearing painted wooden armour, half of his face hidden behind a red wooden mask and the other half behind a mask of tattoos. One of his hands was enclosed in a heavy metal glove and carrying a sceptre, while his right arm ended with what seemed to be an eerie blue light.
The king made a movement with his hand in the direction of another one of the soldiers, whose arms pulled themselves off, and those arms smashed the face of two others. Hobenrûd couldn't do anything, so surprised was he by the power of this sorcery. Dread filled his mind as the king's hand turned on Hobenrûd's direction. Nothing happened. He did more movements, with both hands, and still nothing happened. The visible half of his face smiled, "You are the one. Good. I won't need to go down there to take it. This will make matters easier."
"I don't see how your being unable to use magic will make anything easier for you," Hobenrûd snarled.
The king smiled menacingly, then waved his scepter. Suddenly there were screams of terror from the other footmen as they sank into pools of quicksand and could not get out. Only it wasn't quicksand; it was stone. They were being trapped... in stone?!?
Hobenrûd was alone.
"Give up! Your magic is of no use against me! I will have mercy on your life if you give up!" Hobenrûd shouted, but even to him, it sounded false.
"I don't need my magic," the king said, moving toward Hobenrûd.
"Your daughter may have died," Hobenrûd told him, "there in the fields. Stop resisting, no one else in your family has to die," he continued. He felt bad using Marin to get this monster to give up, but it was for the good of everyone. And to his surprise, the king did stop for a second, but only for a second.
"She betrayed me. I gave her all she could want, and she betrayed me...I guess no one will ever replace Mar-yo." Hobenrûd was going to ask who Mar-yo was, but instead he assumed a battle position with chain in one hand and sword in the other as the king closed in.
The king deflected his every strike with the golden ball on the upper side of the sceptre, and tried more than once to thrust the extensible tip in his arm. But Hobenrûd was also skilled, and even though he was tired from all the fighting, it wasn't easy for the king to finish him without resorting to magic. He sidestepped every thrust the king tried at him, parried every slash, and after ten minutes neither side had been more than scratched, nor exhausted, from their dance of death.
Soon, a dragon-rider saw the commotion on the roof, and steered his giant beast to spew flames on the king. And as the huge animal breathed flames on the rooftops, the king made a movement with his hand, and, somehow, the flames couldn't reach him, as if there was an invisible shield around the rooftop. Then, the dragon's neck suddenly went on a perfect vertical line, and a loud cracking sound could be heard. The dragon, dead, fell down upon the soldiers below.
Hobenrûd then struck his mightiest blow at the king's wooden armour as he was distracted. But, though the king decidedly felt the blow, the armour didn't break, or crack, or shatter. It was if the runes inscribed on it made it indestructible. The king counter-attacked with a kick, that pushed Hobenrûd away. Then he jumped and quickly tried to slash Hobenrûd, but he was prepared and parried while taking some distance.
They ran at each other, screaming madly, their weapons clashed, again, and again. Hobenrûd managed to avoid a parry and slash the king's leg, away from the armour, but it was only a small wound, hardly felt. The king, filled with rage, rotated the sceptre while yelling magical words. The sceptre glowed with an eerie blue glow that slowly went up until it enveloped the king's whole body.
They fought again, but this time, the king managed to get upper hand and the sceptre partly wounded Hobenrûd's left arm. The king kicked his right leg and punched his face, throwing him to the ground. He then went to Hobenrûd and took the bracelet off his arm with his metal glove. The light surrounding slowly faded, and his right arm seemed to be fading too.
Without the bracelet, Hobenrûd could do nothing as the king pushed him, trying to throw him out of the building, but with the bracelet in hand, his powers were highly diminished, so instead he simply kept Hobenrûd forcefully on the ground, as he went to the large artefact, press a small mound, opening a small transparent box, and put the red crystal there. "Ah, finally, the daemon stone," he said, "I was worried that you might not reach me. That those Sardinians were going to be too much for you. But I see you are good."
On the ground, Hobenrûd could barely speak "Why do you need that? It sucks your power."
"Tsk, tsk. Idiot. You cannot even begin to comprehend the power of this artefact, that all thought lost. Amplifying its power I can gather enough magical energy from around the world to open a portal big enough for Kiros to get in. Then, finally, I will be able to rule over this place and make a good future for mankind. I trusted too much the soldiers, but they are a savage and uncontrollable lot. Kiros, on the other hand, is just as savage, but much more controllable."
"The Bloody God?"
"Yes. It once roamed this world, until wizards banished him. It gave everyone so much of a impression that it was included in the ancient pantheon. But ultimately, he's just a monster," the king said, moving around and tinkering with his machinery, "Unfortunately, it is much easier for one to open a gate out of this world than one into this world. And they still needed the combined power of twenty wizards at the time. For some reason, I think I won't find as many willing colleagues to help me in this, so I will have to do it alone."
"Are you insane!? Bringing the Bloody God back will be terrible! He destroyed the entire ancient civilization!" Hobenrûd struggled to stand on his feet, but the power binding him was much too strong.
The king didn't answer, he just pressed another elevation and the artefact started to move by itself, opening reflective wings, and the transparent box where the crystal was started to glow in red light. Hobenrûd could feel a strange convergence of power to the roof of the keep. The king rose his hands to the skies and started chanting.
Hobenrûd realized he could move, slowly, if he made enough effort. The king's power was waning, as the crystal concentrated all magical power in vicinity. He struggled to stand on his feet, but all he could do was to half-crouch, half-stand. His arm seemed ready to fall down as he stretched it to get the sword. The king didn't notice, as Hobenrûd was behind him, and he was far too focused on his ceremony.
Hobenrûd moved, inch by inch, as the king shouted strange magical words, "Me cullan la potentia kiros aparan en me daea reala; me cullad, te aparas--!" the chant was cut short as Hobenrûd's sword pierced his chest, shoving him on the artefact. The king tried to get up, but all he managed to do was to embed the sword even deeper within him, until he no longer moved.
But the artefact hadn't stopped glowing, noticing that the glow of the crystal seemed to be growing, and the very air around them felt warped. Hobenrûd realized that it was too late, the gate was opening. Instead of giving up, he tried tinkering with the artefact, but it was too complicated for his understanding. Looking at the transparent box that held the crystal, Hobenrûd decided that he had to do something, to save the world, to save Ruivoca, to save the people, to save Marin.
He punched the box, there was a flash of light, and then darkness.
"History has no ending and no beginning; the epilogue of the past is the prologue of the future."
--Chronicler Janlaniel Kuchaker
Marin woke up in her room of the palace. At first she thought it was a dream, but the stinging pain on the left side of her torso made her remember the physician brought her here. She grunted, trying to get up.
"So you’re alive," It was Hobenrûd’s voice. She struggled to put herself in a sitting position and look at him.
"...I guess," he was sitting on a white chair, beside her bed.
He smiled. His face was full of cuts, his left hand was in a bloody piece of cloth, his armour, cracked, was on a table nearby, the crystal on his bracelet was cracked and his clothes were ripped in many sections. He kept silent for some time, but then said:
"You look awful," It made her smile.
"You are not looking so good yourself…I guess it was a rough fight."
"Nah, nothing I could not handle. The king was all talk and no action. Okay, my sword was shattered, okay, I lost half of my left hand, but hey, I still got my sword arm intact. I don’t actually remember much of it though. The physician said it was because of a severe trauma... but what do physicians know?" None of the two spoke any words for the next seconds. Then the true extent of the situation hit Marin.
"...So...now that...well, all of this is over...I guess, I’m a queen."
"Pretty much. Anita and Drindell want to speak with you later, by the way. But now, I gotta go to the patient quarters, my hand hurts a little bit, Sallund knows why," he told her.
"Wait! ...Now that I am a queen...I will need..." she hesitated.
"You will need...?" he asked, but having an idea of what she meant. She tried to swallow to wet her throat, it was dry, and she was nervous.
"I...Hoben, since almost a year ago, when I met you at that party I...I thought you were a...bandit, and a rude bandit, too," she tried to start.
"Not so far from the truth," he tried to lighten up.
"I'm serious. Please, just let me...Hoben, after spending so much time with you and Drindell and Gilbert and Anita. I...became different, I think. For better. And I think it was mostly thanks to you, your obsession with helping the people...so...I mean, also...I have been growing fonder of you since then. And now that I'm queen I would need a king to rule with me, and I wanted someone that would be a good for the people, that could, you know, tell me if I'm doing it right, and also...someone I liked. And I really like you now."
Hobenrûd looked at her eyes and smiled, but it soon faded.
"Nah...it wouldn’t work. I’m a warrior," Hobenrûd tried explaining to her.
"Bu-but, that isn’t what you are! I-i-it’s just what you do for a living," Marin spoke fast and in an unsure tone.
“No it is not. The way of the warrior is a way of life. And after spending so much time with me, you know that already. At first it could even work. A throne, feasts, knights. But I wouldn’t give it more than a year...I’m a soldier. The only way I can feel better with myself is if I am fighting for something. Something important, I would prefer."
Marin could feel her eyes getting wet, but she did her best to keep the tears in.
"Then I...I could go with you. I could resign the throne, give it to someone else...an-and go with you," she told him.
"You can’t do that. It would throw the country in civil war...A leader must sacrifice herself for her people," he told her, standing up from the chair.
Marin didn’t answer, but she could feel her eyes getting wetter, she swiped the tears with her hands and kept silent.
"Please, don’t cry," Hobenrûd said, tears forming in his eyes. "I bet that in one year when I come back to visit you’ll have a nice little prince as a husband. A nice little prince with effeminate ways, who smells good and kisses you three times per day. And you’ll have a lot of kids, so many that you won’t even have time to think about me...four, I would guess."
Marin couldn’t help but give a faint smile.
"Four kids in one year?" she pointed the mistake on the future he predicted for her.
"My! How the hell did you do that?! Heh...now, you’ll be a great queen. If you have one third of the talent you appear to have...you'll be the best queen this country ever had. And you’ll get a worthy husband that will love you...and respect you, and...things like that,"
Marin smiled a little harder, but she still had tears on her eyes.
"And I bet you’ll find a new band of merry men, to follow you and fight with, who are even better than the Cherry Wood Knights...and...and you’ll be the greatest soldier in the...well, in the world...and..."
She looked at his eyes and went silent. He simply sighed, smiled and turned around to leave. After he crossed the doorway, she lowered her head and a single tear fell from her left eye. Then she heard a voice:
"Oh, Priss...You just got one thing wrong," Hobenrûd had come back and was standing on the doorway. She looked at him, "I already am."
He went to her bed and they kissed each other for the first, and last, time in recorded history.